Commentators have been so eager to praise “Black Panther” as empowering and inspiring they nearly don’t get around to saying what a terrific movie it is. Good intentions do not guarantee good movies and “Black Panther” wouldn’t be so rousing if it weren’t so smartly put together, so well crafted. When mainstream blockbusters are little more than product, it’s a big deal that a massively hyped f/x-laden movie lives up to the anticipation it generated and that audiences don’t leave feeling cheated.
It’s one of the paradoxes of popular culture that what feels progressive is often, in some basic way, traditional. The choices that director Ryan Coogler and his co-screenwriter, Joe Robert Cole, have made seem like no-brainers — make sure the story is coherent; film and edit the action sequences so you can tell what’s going on; don’t allow the effects to overshadow your characters or story; and, when you have a cast as charismatic as this one, flaunt the charisma. This all sounds like the basic things moviemakers are supposed to do. But we live in a time when movies can cost a quarter of a billion dollars and, in terms of coherency and craft, be basically illiterate. In “Black Panther,” Coogler is using the craft of classic Hollywood adventure stories to present his story to audiences who have never before seen themselves in one.
That determination to carry the past into the new world is also what accounts for a strain of the movie that has so far gone unnoticed. The fictional African nation in “Black Panther,” Wakanda, is a technologically advanced society that hides its achievments from the world. All these advances are thanks to something called vibranium, one of those comic-book whatsits that confer power on their hero, in this case on a whole country. (Put it this way: Vibranium is spinach and Wakanda is Popeye.) One of the movie’s most appealing characters is Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther’s little sister who, like 007’s Q, is the movie’s gadgetmaster. We see her in her lab, fiddling with her newest invention, looking out on all the underground workings that power the country. But where many fantasy films would have made the whole of Wakanda into something like that subterranean technosphere — and presented that to us as an advanced way of life — the Wakanda we see comprises vast plains and waterfalls drenched in sun. City life is represented by a crowded market thronged by Wakandans in a cheerful hubbub — no neon or digital billboards present. At a time when one of our abiding anxieties is what place humanity will have in an age increasingly dominated by technology, this vision of a world where people have mastered technology instead of the other way round is almost subconsciously reassuring.
In Ryan Coogler’s previous movie, the marvelous “Creed,” as in “Black Panther,” with its characters, in ways both courageous and destructive, trying to honor their heritage while moving ahead, Coogler is concerned with how you bring the best of the past forward into the present. In “Creed,” that best of the past was Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, as he coached the son of his former rival, Apollo Creed, to boxing glory. Watching Rocky sought out as a wise elder, watching the character move easily through the Philadelphia neighborhood that, in the 40 years since we first saw him, had changed from largely Italian to largely black and Latino, it was possible to think you were watching a parable of the passing of white America. But unlike the one white supremacists want us to believe, this was a benevolent vision of an America in which the wisdom the past has to offer will be honored.
This is implicit in “Black Panther” with its story line that champions engagement over isolation, and that choice is an implicit rebuke to the xenophobia of the Trump regime. But the real melding of present and past in “Black Panther” lies in the determination of Coogler and his cast to restore to movies the notions of heroism and courage and tradition and — especially whenever Danai Gurira’s Okoye is on screen — the beauty of physical daring, and to do it with people who never should have had to wait this long to get their own movie myth.Charles Taylor is the author of “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.”